Fraser Valley farmer Chris Bodnar began this year with certainty about what he would grow and where he would sell his produce. That was before the disruption and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. But farming has always demanded the ability to adapt, as technology, climate, or the market shifts. So he is sowing a different mix of crops this spring.
There will be no luxury produce, such as melons and the fancy salad mixes that he would normally sell to restaurants and warehouse distributors. Those markets have dried up. Instead, he is planting dependable and long-keeping produce to meet the surge in demand for subscription boxes that will go directly to consumers.
“You don’t plant a crop if you don’t know how you’re going to sell it," he explains.
Like the promise of freshly planted fields, B.C.’s agriculture sector is poised for a transformation this year. It’s one that is imposed by the pandemic, but could result in lasting, positive change.
There is an urgent call in the province for food security as supply chains threaten the flow of imports and exports: British Columbia’s highly developed, “just-in-time” food supply chain requires fluid borders that are, at this time, more impermeable.
At the same time, the agriculture sector is struggling with labour shortages because the migrant workers who usually arrive early in the spring by the thousands are no longer as mobile. This past week, hundreds of temporary foreign workers arrived in B.C., but they will remain in quarantine for two weeks before they can begin work.
For many farmers, the measures to prevent the spread of the virus have led to a drastic decline in sales as consumers stay home. Forging a secure path between consumers and their local farmers is now critical, and many farmers are looking to online sales and contact-less delivery to create that link.
The result will change what ends up on our dinner plates.
“We don’t know what it is going to look like, but everyone is adapting on daily basis,” Mr. Bodnar says.
At Glenn Valley Organic Farm, with five hectares under cultivation, a small contingent of long-time farmhands are putting in beets, carrots, lettuce and potatoes. Later in the season, they will follow with heat-seeking tomatoes and cucumbers. The crops are chosen based on staples that consumers are sure to want, that won’t expire quickly and that require the least amount of labour to harvest.
Since the mid-1990s, when the North American free-trade agreement was signed, B.C. agriculture has been shaped by crossborder trade. Rather than competing with cheap produce flooding in from California and Mexico, farmers here specialized in products for export – mushrooms and blueberries, for example.
But in recent years, the local food movement has favoured smaller farms such as Mr. Bodnar’s. Scaling up the local food movement, however, will require change.
The province’s dairy, eggs and meat producers have a solid base of distribution and can meet domestic needs, but B.C. doesn’t have the capacity to preserve home-grown produce – canning or freezing or storage – to meet year-round demand.
Lana Popham, B.C.’s Agriculture Minister, says this sector is primed to adapt: Her ministry was already working on an array of programs to promote local consumption, and with her government now throwing billions of dollars at trying to keep essential components of the economy afloat, she has free rein to launch those changes.
“The crisis that we’re in has actually allowed us to move forward quite quickly on new ways to distribute food across the province. I don’t see us going backwards after we’ve made it through,” she said in an interview. “We have an incredible consumer base anyway that appreciates local food, but this has really pushed it to a different level. … I feel like we were ahead of the curve.”
The province does have diversity in agriculture, from its vineyards and fruit orchards of the Okanagan, wheat and corn in the Fraser Valley and seafood from the coast.
Still, B.C.'s dependence on food from abroad will be tested by the ability to secure imports of fresh produce. In 2018, British Columbia imported almost $8-billion in food and beverages, and exported $6-billion worth of agricultural and seafood products.
Professor Hannah Wittman is the academic director of the University of B.C. Centre for Sustainable Food Systems. She says B.C. can do more to improve its self-reliance in times of crisis, but it should not be aiming for an end to the reciprocal trade system it has now.
“It’s not about shutting our borders and saying, ‘Oh, we have some nice agricultural land and we’ll just feed ourselves and to heck with people in northern Manitoba,’ ” she says. “What we need is to build a resilient, regional food system that can produce a wide range of foods, and that can protect the future growing capacity of the land, so that it can pivot to adapt to crises like this."
Prof. Wittman says the pandemic has exposed a vulnerability of the agriculture sector, in its reliance on low-paid temporary foreign workers. An outbreak on a farm now would shut down the entire operation.
“Government needs to provide economic support to farmers and to make sure they have access to their labour. They need to work with them to modify their supply chains to make sure that farming production can happen using social distancing, and they need to provide adequate housing and health care for seasonal migrant workers.”
Ironically, some of that is happening now as the government is forced to step in to ensure that Mexican labourers can enter the country at this time.
Ms. Popham, who has been working to help safely bring in temporary foreign workers for the coming season, also wants to find ways to attract more domestic labour to the province’s farms.
“I think we’re going to be able to fill any gaps with our local food supply, but we really need people to understand that the more food we eat, the more labour it takes and so the trick is to figure out how do we encourage our own B.C.'ers, our own Canadians, to work in agriculture. And that’s the problem that we’re trying to solve right now.”
All of this attention on the security of B.C.'s food supply has sparked a “radical rise” in support for local food systems, says Anita Georgy, director of the advocacy group FarmFolk CityFolk.
“We’re just starting to see the beginning of goods not making it across borders and shipping containers being stuck in ports. This crisis is really making us think about how we depend on a really complex global food system with imports and exports crossing borders and travelling long distances.” And, she says, it’s important that we protect farmland and support farmers so they can make a good living while growing the province’s food.
The silver lining of this disruption, she predicts, will be a more robust local food system. “It absolutely is going to have an impact on the food that we eat. The world is sort of going back to basics, simplifying. My sense is that people will be eating more seasonally, more locally, and really building those local connections.”
U.S. author Michael Pollan, whose bestselling books explore how we put food on the table, has long urged people to eat food that your great-grandmother would have recognized. Your dinner plate may well look more recognizable to her in the coming months.